As a society, we often assume that if someone is a master of a skill, they can teach that skill — perhaps masterfully. Hence retired athletes become coaches, great artists give master classes, and the famous get paid infamously for seminars.
Is it all bullshit?
What exactly makes us so sure that a master of a complex skill can convey that skill to others? What makes us think that a master's particular approach will work for anyone else but that master? (Maria Callas had a very distinct voice and singing style; opera singers who try to ape that style might wind up sounding like they're singing through a Campbell's soup can.) For that matter, what makes us so sure that a master has a realistic grasp of what makes him or her masterful?
What makes me think about this? Famed trial lawyer Gerry Spence — who says he never lost a criminal trial in 50 years, culminating recently in the acquittal of Geoffrey Feiger — has a new blog, and has been writing about teaching trial lawyering. He's got a lot of interesting ideas about the law that are well worth reading. Some of his ideas about teaching lawyers to be effective advocates are, well, creative:
The exercise for the day is silence—blessed silence. We met in the loft of the big barn at five o’clock. Once we entered the barn all was silent except for the instructions I gave. We should meet with Mother Nature. Every part of us came from her, and will one day return to her. We should go in silence and listen to her and see what, if anything she has to say to us.
. . . .
I instruct the lawyers, we call them warriors, for these warriors fight for the rights of people against the daunting power of corporations and government—I instruct the warriors to go into the hills that surround the ranch. Find a place that is yours, where you can see no other person—perhaps by one of the huge old rocks discarded by retreating glaciers, or down by the stream. Nothing here will harm you. The wild animals, the deer, the antelope, the coyotes, the moose—they are all friendly. Even the mountain lion is shy and will slip away to avoid the noise of your feet.
When they find their place they should lie down on the earth and listen. Perhaps there will be a message. Perhaps the warrior has something to say to Mother Earth. Perhaps the warrior will ask questions like: What is the history of my life? Who am I? Where have I been all of these years? What roads have I traveled? And, having heard the answers to those questions, perhaps he or she will have a better idea of the road ahead.
Then these lawyers will come in and have a silent breakfast. Not a word will be exchanged among them. And after breakfast they will meet again in the big barn where they will paint. Paint? Lawyers painting? They will be asked to paint who they are, to paint a portrait of their soul. They will find in that exercise something of themselves that most have never encountered. And they will paint in complete silence.
And so on, in that manner.
Now Gerry Spence's effectiveness as a trial lawyer cannot be denied. But why should we assume that his ability can be transferred through teaching? Why assume his style would work for any but a few with compatible styles? For that matter, why should we believe that silence and communing with nature actually have something to do with effective trial lawyering, rather than concluding that these are things that Gerry Spence, for philosophical reasons, likes to believe are related to his success?
Someone with a career as long, varied, and successful as Gerry Spence will almost always be interesting to hear, and will usually have some valuable insights about his craft. But at some point studying under him — like studying under any master — drifts into the realm of hero-worship. If the master always wears purple socks before trial, who am I to question him that wearing purple socks is effective?
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